Asheville City Council

  • Bye-bye Holly Jones
  • Council approves new lighting standards
  • City to co-sponsor “anchor events”

As Asheville City Council meetings go, the Nov. 25 formal session had a decidedly emotional start, with a sometimes-tearful farewell to outgoing Council member Holly Jones, who’s moving on to claim a seat on the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners.

“I cannot possibly capture the work and legacy, your handprint on city,” said Mayor Terry Bellamy, presenting Jones with a resolution of appreciation as fellow Council members stood around the lectern.

Jones, who leaves after seven years in city government, said she feels honored to have been elected twice to a Council seat. “It is humbling to know that people have the faith in me to do that,” she said. Jones also had special words for each of her six remaining Council colleagues, who will choose her replacement on Dec. 9.

Bill Russell, Jones said, is “upbeat,” Jan Davis reminds her that “serving is a privilege,” Robin Cape reminds her of “what community is.” And it was thanks to Brownie Newman, she said, that “I got into this stuff” in the first place. To Bellamy, Jones said, “I admire the way you represent this city.” And to ideological-opposite Carl Mumpower, Jones said she “had respect for your ability to serve.”

After that, Jones turned her attention toward the staffers who sit at the Council table the last three Tuesdays of every month. She complimented City Attorney Bob Oast (“Nobody works harder or takes their job more seriously”) and City Manager Gary Jackson (“We hired the best city manager in the country”). But the waterworks really started when Jones got to City Clerk Maggie Burleson. “Maggie,” she intoned, her voice croaking as she turned toward Burleson (who was also tearing up), “You are a wonder of efficiency and caring. You have my ongoing gratitude.” Jones then requested some tissues, which Bellamy fetched from outside the Council chamber.

As good as an ending to the story as that would have been, however, it was only the beginning of the evening. Jones still had one more meeting to get through—and one with the prospect of nuclear disaster on the agenda, no less.

A hot payload

For the past three years, a local group called Common Sense at the Nuclear Crossroads has been studying the issue of transporting nuclear waste on U.S. highways, and their message is simple: Some 60,000 tons of spent radioactive fuel are piling up at American nuclear-power-plant sites. One day it will have to be moved, and Asheville sits along a major corridor linking Northern power plants and potential waste-storage facilities in South Carolina.

The federal government has not yet selected permanent storage sites, but two candidates are located in our neighbor to the south, and the completion of the Interstate 26 corridor will make it an easy route to choose.

Nonetheless, the risks associated with trucking waste canisters through Asheville are dire, said Common Sense member Robbie Sweetser. A serious accident involving one of these trucks, he said, could result in “an abandonment zone” in which any exposed structures would have to be demolished and the area would be left uninhabitable.

With that thought hanging in the air, the group proposed an ordinance banning the transportation of spent nuclear waste through the city of Asheville. Once the waste leaves power-plant sites, said Sweetser, it becomes federal property. “It belongs to you and me, and it’s up to us to figure out what to do with it,” he asserted. The federal government, added Sweetser, takes a state’s wishes into consideration when planning transport routes.

The group clearly had Cape on their side. She made a motion to adopt the ordinance, declaring, “We do not think the middle of our town is an appropriate place to transport this waste.”

But the city attorney had serious reservations about a local ordinance intended to affect something so heavily regulated at the federal level. Federal law, he said, trumps any city ordinance “if it cannot be complied with or if it is an obstacle to carrying out [federal law].”

Cape, however, argued that it was still an important statement to make. “If the federal government wants to transport nuclear waste through Asheville, they can do pretty much whatever they want,” she conceded. “[But] this is our opportunity to state our wishes.”

Several communities across the U.S., she said, have drafted similar ordinances. “And frankly, they want to come through Asheville rather than Charlotte or Raleigh because we have fewer people,” Cape maintained. Even apart from protecting Asheville, she added, the local ordinance would be a small piece of a larger attempt to start a national conversation about nuclear power. “I’m not being a NIMBY and saying don’t come through Asheville. I hope every city in the country stands up and says ‘not in our city.’”

Cape’s motion got a second by Jones, but there seemed to be little support beyond that.

“I’m not persuaded this is the right thing to do,” said Newman. “If coming through Asheville is the best way to do it, that’s what we should do. I’m not sure a bunch of communities collectively saying we don’t want it here is the best approach.”

Russell, noting that concerns about nuclear wastes are neither new nor unique to Asheville, argued that the scenarios evoked by proponents of the ordinance were overblown.

“First of all, people need to not overreact to this,” said Russell. “It is important we don’t [say] nuclear fuel will be coming up and down our streets, because that’s simply not the case.” And nuclear power, he asserted, is an important component of the country’s ability to navigate the current energy crisis.

Oast, meanwhile, said a resolution, rather than an ordinance, would be a more appropriate way to send a message, but he would still want to do some research before presenting it to Council for a vote. Only an informal direction from Council is needed to draft a resolution, which therefore would not trigger the public comment required by a formal vote, noted Bellamy. That didn’t sit well with some in the audience, who grumbled that they wouldn’t get a chance to speak.

But Bellamy did not get the requisite nods from Council members, and when it became apparent that there wasn’t even enough support to pursue a resolution, Cape threw up her hands, exclaiming, “The city just put out a welcome sign!”

Bellamy, however, said she would meet with the group to discuss the best way to approach state legislators about these concerns.

Outside the Council chamber, Sweetser told Xpress that he was surprised by the outcome, saying he’d expected at least the possibility of a future resolution.

“To totally go nowhere does surprise me,” said Sweetser, adding that his group had previously met with every Council member, as well as Oast and Jackson. But he remained positive concerning the mayor’s offer to meet.

“I am extremely appreciative of that. We will take what we can grab,” he said.

Cutting the glare

On a brighter note, Council approved several new resolutions involving lights and signs in Asheville, including a change to the Unified Development Ordinance intended to reduce light pollution in the night sky. The new language is the result of a collaboration between stakeholders and community activists who’ve been hunting down unnecessary glare in the mountains (see “Dusk to Dawn,” July 9 Xpress).

“There was a lot of consideration and a lot of compromise,” said Bernie Arghiere, a member of the city’s focus group addressing excessive light. “If it had been up to me, it would have been a much darker ordinance, but it’s taking a big step forward.”

The new language requires new light installations in places such as parking lots and gas stations to include shielding that focuses more light on the ground while sending less into the sky. Lights already in place won’t need to be brought up to code until they wear out and need to be replaced.

The change entails more than just preserving a view of the stars, noted Cape, who spent a few nights driving around with focus-group members. “Light features in cities can be so intense that driving down the road is dangerous,” she said.

And Russell, an insurance agent, responded to Mumpower’s concern that the move constituted excessive government regulation, saying, “I don’t like the heavy hand of government either, but I feel like this is a case where it benefits public safety.”

The UDO amendment was approved 6-1, with Mumpower opposed.

In a separate vote, Council members also approved the use of both digital signs and LED marquees downtown, as well as signs on city buses—a revenue option Council had explored back in September (see “Asheville City Council,” Sept. 17 Xpress).

Show of support

Two years after it was the focus of a noise-complaint controversy (see “The Beat Goes On,” July 26, 2006 Xpress), the Pritchard Park drum circle has now been identified as one of Asheville’s most important events. Accordingly, argued Superintendent of Cultural Arts Diane Ruggiero, it should get financial support from the city.

Last spring, Council members voted to stop providing free equipment and trash pickup to 23 local events the city co-sponsors. The cuts, effective through the end of 2008, came over the objection of Bellamy, who wanted staff to prioritize the various events and assign different levels of city assistance (see “Asheville City Council,” May 28 Xpress).

Now, however, Ruggiero was looking ahead to the next 18 months, and she came armed with a list of six “anchor events” that she believes merit full city support. The Asheville Greek Festival, the Holiday Parade, Downtown After Five, Goombay!, Shindig on the Green and the drum circle, she said, generate enough interest and revenue to warrant a higher level of city involvement.

Support for those anchor events, said Ruggiero, would cost the city $93,518 between Jan. 1, 2009 and June 30, 2010. Add another $28,482 in waived fees for a total of 26 co-sponsored events, and the city’s total cost would be $217,000 less than in 2008, she reported.

With a motion on the table poised to pass, Bellamy made a last-minute amendment adding $1,000 from the mayoral travel fund to co-sponsor Veterans Day and Memorial Day events—support she said has been lacking in the past. The amended motion was approved 6-1 with Mumpower opposed.

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